With a delightful break from winter this past week, it’s been easy to get outside pretty much every day to see what’s going on out there. It struck me yesterday wandering around in sunny 70+ weather how much different it was on that day back in 2011. It was so extremely cold that day they sent everybody home from work early and wouldn’t let me retire from my job until the next day.
Before meeting a friend for lunch on Friday, I made a quick stop to check out the irrigation ditch at the end of Via Oreada in Corrales where the birds seemed to be enjoying the weather and going after all the insects that had also come to life. Several Yellow-rumped Warblers were working the branches all along the ditch,
Song Sparrows and a couple of Black Phoebes were checking out the water, and a pair of Ruby-crowned Kinglets took turns flying out over the ditch before returning to the trees.
Remembering that the first nesting Great Horned Owl was reported last year on February 6, Saturday morning had me out checking some of my usual spots just in case anybody had started nesting yet. It was still a surprise, however, to see at my very first stop that nesting was in full swing in the same spot on the grounds of the Albuquerque Academy that they’ve used since 2014.
Too cool! – and off to check on a few other possibilities. First up, Piedras Marcadas, where they’d also used the same old Cooper’s Hawk nest the last several years. That nest is looking a little worn, and I doubt they’ll use it again this year, but there are a couple of other old hawk nests that look promising, especially one that the Cooper’s Hawk nested in just last summer. I looked around the whole area pretty well, but didn’t see any owls there that day. Returning a few days later was going pretty much the same way until I decided to give one particular tree a closer look. Not a very tall tree, it did still have most of its leaves where an owl could easily hide. I just happened to approach it at the right angle to pick out the slightly lighter color and shape of first one and then another Great Horned Owl just sitting quietly in there. In this picture, you can easily see one of them while the other one is still pretty well hidden about two feet to the right. Because the second one got nervous and acted as if it was about to fly, I immediately backed off and headed away, and they settled back down.
Returning a few days later hoping for a better picture and to see if they’d chosen a nesting spot yet, they were nowhere to be seen, and I might check on them again in another week or so. A small number of Sandhill Cranes have been there on my visits and interesting to hear their loud calls echoing off the houses above the dam.
My next stop on Saturday morning was Calabacillas Arroyo and the trail north to Alameda. Owls had nested high in a cottonwood near the Rio Grande dam in 2013, weren’t seen in 2014, but have used another old snag the last two years. It was quite a surprise as I approached that spot to see a bunch of American Crows calling and flying about, apparently harrassing the owls who seem to be thinking about nesting here again. This one was obviously having nothing to do with that and proudly defending their home.
That guy had enough to deal with, so again I slowly backed off and headed back to the car. Owls are usually nesting somewhere in the bosque around the Rio Grande Nature Center, so that was my next stop that morning. Last year, we even had two nests, one about a half mile south of the visitor center and later in the season another one about the same distance north. I didn’t see anybody around that day, however, and will be getting back out there to take another look around soon. There did seem to be an unusual number of porcupines around for that area,
which are always fun to point out to folks, and a few more Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting about.
The next morning I headed out to Valle de Oro NWR and the Isleta Lakes hoping to see Bald Eagles, who along with the Sandhill Cranes will soon be migrating north. Cranes, Canada and Snow Geese, and a huge flock of Horned Larks were hanging out in the fields at Valle de Oro, but it was unusually quiet in the bosque area near the Rio Grande. The only bird I’d see on the trail there was a young Cooper’s Hawk.
Driving back through the refuge, an obviously large bird was perched on one of the old dead cottonwood snags – yep, an immature Bald Eagle.
Much further away, I’d also see an adult with another young one. Too far for a photo, it was still fun pointing them out to a couple visiting from somewhere back East. Once again, at Isleta Lakes where others have been seeing quite a few Bald Eagles this year, I’d only get distant views of one or two flying close to the river. I did get to sneak up on a Belted Kingfisher and spotted a Great Blue Heron relaxing in a cottonwood.
Tuesday morning had me out wandering the bosque from the Open Space Visitor Center south to Montano, where in years past we’ve had owls nesting in at least three different locations. I wasn’t able to spot any on that trip, but enjoyed seeing a Peregrine Falcon perched high in a tree near the irrigation ditch,
and having a healthy-looking coyote keeping an eye on me as it made its way through the woods.
This week, the Audubon Thursday Birders headed down to Bosque del Apache NWR on an absolutely fabulous sunny and warm day. We’d end the day with a ridiculous number of 63 species (adding another two – a Loggerhead Shrike and Greater Roadrunner – on the way home). Right off the bat we spotted four or more Phainopepla, added a couple of Belted Kingfishers and several more species before even getting to the refuge.
A treat for me was seeing a pair of Pyrrhuloxia at the Visitor Center.
Target bird for the trip and bird of the day was the rare Long-tailed Duck (formerly known as Oldsquaw), which Rebecca managed to get in her scope after working the area for quite a while. It had been seen there for the last few days, but typically spends most of its time underwater only popping up for a second or two. Fortunately for us, it took a break while we were watching and sat up on the surface long enough for everybody to get a good look. Lunch at the boardwalk was entertaining with huge flocks of Snow Geese flying over, a Northern Harrier buzzing by, and four Bald Eagles goofing off high in the sky.
Having been almost a week since I’d seen that Great Horned Owl being harrassed by those crows, I went back yesterday to see if they’d started nesting yet. It was very quiet when I arrived and other than a woman riding her horse down the trail and another guy out with his dog, nothing else seemed to be around. It was quite a surprise then to hear a Great Horned Owl start hooting from nearby, and even more surprising to hear another one return the call. Only twice in the last six years have I had owls make any sound at all during the daytime, but if they do I know they’re there and I start making a concerted search to spot them. They can hide so incredibly well it took me a few minutes to spot this one hiding in the leaves.
Don’t see it? How about now?
Moving around a bit and a little closer, I finally got this better look at the guy.
I had a pretty good idea about where the other one had to be, above and behind me on the other side of the trail, but never managed to spot it – maybe she was hiding deep inside the snag nest, had flown silently away, or was just better at hiding.
In other news, the butterflies have started up again this year. I’ve seen a couple of Mourning Cloaks this week and heard about Hoary Commas being seen, butterflies that overwinter as adults in the leaf litter until there’s a warm and sunny day, but we also had a couple of Sleepy Oranges and a Checkered White at Bosque del Apache. This leads me to believe it won’t be long until our state butterfly, the Sandia Hairstreak (Callophrys mcfarlandi), and other early spring butterflies start appearing in the foothills. Still probably a couple of weeks early, but worth a visit to the Texas Beargrass in Embudito just to check. Nope, no hairstreaks yet, but a Greater Roadrunner showed off for me during my visit.